Hidden costs: On Lilith Fair and subtle exclusion

HEY LADIES AND THE FOLKS WHO LOVE THEM, REMEMBER LILITH FAIR? I certainly do, as I once had visions of attending it — visions which, like the proverbial sugar plums-dancing-in-childrens’-heads-come-December, did not materialize. Now that I think about it, this probably ended up being a good thing.

Well, the women’s music festival that isn’t that other one (and Lilith Fair, to its credit, does not have exclusion policies based on what gender an individual was assigned at birth) is back and it is BIGGER THAN EVER. It is going to be in my neck of the woods (the venue, however, happens to be about two hours away from where I live) rather soon, and it is going to be stopping at a pretty large outdoor arena that also happens to be built on a landfill.

As will quickly become apparent, I’m not a huge fan of Lilith Fair; I have some highly specific problems with it which, gasp, are not all about the music! With regards to the actual music, I don’t want to just throw my hands up from my keyboard and be all UGH SOME OF THE ARTISTS ARE SOOO TERRIBLE AND BORING NEENER NEENER. I used to rely on that sort of argument with some frequency, and, let me tell you, not doing that is so much more exciting, because it means that I can write long-ass posts on things that I find problematic in some ways (and, often, not completely without merit) instead of going THIS TOTALLY SUCKS WHY WOULD ANYONE LISTEN TO IT BAH and having that be the end of my opinion. I also don’t think that wholesale boringness, or totally sucking, or being the musical equivalent of Grocery Outlet (in which you think you are getting a good deal, but really you are just buying close-to-expiration-date food items — and, for God’s sake, be careful with those reduced-price dairy products!), is the case with many of these artists. I may not be a fan of, say, Norah Jones, but I can acknowledge that she is very good at what she does; she has struck a chord with folks for a reason that may, actually, be deeper than the popular music industry’s tendency to latch onto a trend and push it until it becomes the peat moss in the ground of modern music.

Here’s one big issue I have with Lilith Fair, in terms of social inclusion: Despite its attempts at “diversity” in its most recent incarnation, the roster of performers for 2010 is still fairly…white. And middle-class — just look at the ticket prices, for one thing. And, presumably, able-bodied. And, tangentially: if Sarah McLaughlan were diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome or something, you KNOW she would be all over raising awareness of that condition like hippies on a drum circle, perhaps appearing in a high-profile ad campaign of some kind. She is great with that kind of “raising awareness” stuff — see, for example, her tear-inducing recent ads for the ASPCA. While I do have problems with the whole “raising awareness” activism/charity model for a lot of things — including for PWDs and people with chronic illnesses/health conditions — overall, I respect Sarah immensely for her activist work, my own issues with the charity model of activism aside.

However: even if some of the artists whose music I actually enjoy (Erykah Badu, Sia, Janelle Monae, or Gossip, for example) were going to be on the roster for the day that the Lilith caravan-slash-sleek tour bus makes a stop at the legendary Landfill Amphitheater, I still would not go. Because the roster would still seem, to me, pretty white, middle-class, and abled — and, more crucially, it seems made for that exact kind of audience.  It is, ultimately, a kind of weird “elitism” that masquerades as Lilith Fair’s (promoted) status as a Music Festival For All Women.

I do think that this sort of “elitism” that Lilith Fair is promoting is almost painfully subtle. It is made for an audience that can, first and foremost, afford to be there —  Lilith Fair offers several ticket packages, from the nosebleed $36 lawn tickets to $756 for something called the “Diamond Package.” I am one of those people who usually gets nosebleed tickets, because most of the time, that is the only thing that I can afford. Of course, only a small percentage of concertgoers will probably buy the “Diamond Package” tickets; more folks will buy the less-expensive tickets. But even with the “lower end” tickets, one must still purchase them and, in all likelihood, pay for a bunch of things like processing fees and all that, which of course ups the prices of even the “inexpensive” tickets. If you can afford to pay those “convenience fees,” you’re good.

If you can’t, or if the fees put you off of buying even the “reasonably priced” tickets, the festival may not look so reasonably-priced after all. For some (middle-class) folks, getting concert tickets may not be that big of a deal, but what happens to those folks who aren’t middle class, and may have to do things like take time off of work to go to this festival? There are also probably many hidden costs that I am not considering here, such as transportation. Simply put, the cost(s) of going to a “diverse” and “inclusive” festival that unproblematically presents itself as For All Women can add up to way more than the ticket price.

The ability question is also worth considering in-depth; as far as I know, Lilith Fair does not specify any policies or instructions on its website for people with disabilities who may need special seating or other accommodations. This is problematic for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the message seems to be, in the words of my friend and awesome FWD co-blogger Anna, that people with disabilities “don’t exist.” In Lilith Fair’s super-woman-power-goddess universe, women with disabilities are left out, thereby not exactly contributing to LF’s supposed standing as a music festival For All Women. If you are leaving women with disabilities out, you are leaving some women out of your musical utopia. Certainly, accessibility policies will vary from venue to venue, but because LF is so huge and is of such note, I believe its coordinators have a responsibility to reach out to people who have, traditionally, been ignored, left out and/or forgotten about by major music festivals — and that group includes people — women — with disabilities.

If Lilith Fair wants to be truly radical and different, it will take steps toward being for a wide variety of women, and people, instead of simply promoting itself as such. There is a huge difference between presenting an event or group as being For All Women and actually taking steps toward real inclusion. So, Lilith Fair coordinators, what are your policies on wheelchair accessibility? Interpreters for the hard-of-hearing? Seats for people who can’t do the “standing room only” thing because of chronic pain or mobility issues? These, of course, are just a few questions about accessibility; there are many, many more facets of accessibility that I have not mentioned here.

One final note: Before anyone accuses me of “not supporting women musicians” because of my issues with Lilith Fair, my fannishness and support of many women musicians is fairly well-documented — among them Tori Amos, Alanis Morrissette, Nina Simone, Jesse Sykes, and many, many others — so that argument will not fly with me. In my view, the whole “you’re not supporting women musicians if you have issues with Lilith Fair!” is the penguin of arguments about women musicians — it may be cute and kinda funny at times, but it cannot fly. And in my view, neither can Lilith Fair’s consistent trumpeting of itself as For All Women, when it still has so far to go.

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